By sports editor Russell Bennett
For many, the flashpoint came on 14 May, soon after 6pm at the Morwell Bowls Club.
That’s when the AFL Gippsland commission was effectively given its marching orders by AFL Victoria, which led football and netball people throughout the region to stop and make their stand.
The Gazette was the first to report on the story that had wide-ranging ramifications across Victorian football and netball, not just the sports in the Gippsland region.
Former AFL Gippsland commissioner John White spoke to the Gazette on the night of the commission’s sacking, saying the decision “has long-term implications for the direction of football throughout the Gippsland region”.
He wasn’t wrong.
Clubs throughout the area had started looking closely at their own backyard long before that fateful day in May. They clearly wanted more control of their own destiny.
But May the 14th highlighted it.
Now, growing numbers of football and netball people are urging AFL House to hear the voice of the bush – before, they feel, it’s too late, and irreparable damage has been done.
They’ve all been on this merry-go-round before.
Every few years the discussion, particularly in Gippsland, revolves heavily around the need for divisional footy across the region, and how it should be structured. Opinions have flown in from far and wide – for decades – about how it should happen, and what it should look like.
Yet, for years until this point, substantial action is yet to be taken.
A number of competitions across the region have stepped out from under the Regional Administration Centre, and it seems some involved in the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition are keen for it to do the same.
There have been rumours swirling for weeks surrounding the future make-up of the WGFNC, particularly.
Some believe their clubs are headed for switches into different regions entirely – such as AFL Outer East, or AFL South East.
But Nar Nar Goon Football Club president Dene Missen, in speaking to the Gazette, said: “I have found all other (WGFNC club) presidents very supportive of each other and the current structure.
“All of us believe the WGFNC is a great competition that is definitely going from strength to strength each year. We should not have to change to fix problems in other leagues.”
Though there is talk of a push from many of the WGFNC clubs to see their competition revert to a 10-club set-up – potentially with two of the struggling clubs in the current 12-club structure returning to the Alberton league.
“We were happy with the initial 10-team competition, and think that is the fairest way with fixturing to find equality,” Missen said, adding his disappointment at Gippsland clubs not being given a reason for the sacking of the AFL Gippsland commissioners.
He also said that he would welcome promotion-relegation “down the track”, but added he didn’t feel Gippsland League clubs like Drouin, Warragul, or Wonthaggi were suited to the WGFNC.
“The Alberton league issue needs to be resolved, and maybe sending two clubs back there from the WGFNC is the answer – and having promotion-relegation down the track,” he said.
“(And) if divisional football is put forward, why not have three divisions with EDFL in the middle?”
Kooweerup senior football coach Ben Collins recently outlined his own proposal for a three-tier promotion-relegation structure in Gippsland.
Missen said his club didn’t want to be part of AFL Outer East, or the Gippsland League.
But he stopped short of calling for the existing WGFNC clubs to go it alone – away from the RAC.
“We’d consider going it alone if the RAC doesn’t find the right solution, but we’d rather remain,” he said.
“Three league structure changes in four years is not ideal.
“The club presidents need to get together as soon as possible and work on a united approach, rather than be dictated to.”
Missen said he agrees with much of what White has said since the AFL Gippsland commission’s ousting.
“Especially that AFL Victoria doesn’t put enough time or funding into community football,” he said.
“Clubs are a positive environment for young people and families to get together and get away from some of the stresses in life.”
There was also a Change.org petition, set up this week, calling on AFL House to listen to those in footy’s grassroots.
It is understood that White is preparing a letter to AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan calling for a true “community engagement model” in a review into regional and community football.
“Our call for an independent review of the relationship between AFL Victoria and regional, (or) country football and netball is driven by the communities who rely on their clubs in galvanising the hard-working volunteers serving those communities,” he said.
“The cost of administration has risen, the need for volunteers has increased, and yet there remains questionable support from AFL Vic – don’t believe me? Go ask (the) people who toil each weekend trying to keep their clubs active and their heads above water.”
The Gazette also understands that state and federal members of parliament in regional areas have also been contacted by those concerned with the future direction of football and netball in their communities.
The momentum is there. Now the question is – what will come of it?
The petition can be found at: http://chng.it/f8tztQvD